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The Roulette Wheel of NHL Suspensions Continues

Jan 30, 2008, 8:21 AM EDT

Don’t count us among the fans of the NHL’s new predilection for suspending players for infractions that not too long ago were disciplined simply by sending them to the penalty box. Our dislike of this trend may be because we liked things fine the way they were, but really, I think it has more to do with the NHL’s inability to apply these suspensions with any type of consistency.

Five Flyers have been suspended this year, for a total of 52 games. When Steve Downie was handed the first letter from Toronto after a nasty hit on Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond in the preseason, it was debated whether he should have been suspended at all, let alone 20 games. The hit was away from the boards, and didn’t involve a stick, but it was perhaps unnecessarily excessive. In any case, it was clear the league wanted to send a message that these hits wouldn’t be tolerated in 2007-2008. Just a few games into the season, Jesse Boulerice took a horribly stupid shot to the face of the Canucks Ryan Kessler, and got a deserved 25-game break.

And after that, the Flyers have worn a target on their backs, while others have gotten away with playing the game just as roughly.

Randy Jones was handed a two-game suspension for a legal check that
unfortunately landed the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron in a hospital and out
of hockey indefinitely.

Jones is not known for goonery, and the replays
show that the hit was not excessive, that Bergeron was just in a bad
position and met the boards awkwardly. It seemed that Jones was
suspended for the aftermath of the hit, and not really his role in it.
But the league wanted to send a message that it was protecting its
players, and that anything near the boards that was not 100% head-on might result in a
suspension.

Next, Scott Hartnell got two games for hitting another Bruin, Andrew Alberts, who was in a vulnerable position at the boards. Hartnell drew a 5-minute major and got tossed, but the league didn’t think that was quite enough.

It was a cheap shot, but we thought that was what the 5+ match were for.

Finally, Riley Cote got involved, drawing three games for an elbow to the head. Obviously he broke a rule here, but last we checked, there was a penalty called "Elbowing" in the rule book, and players do it in almost every game. Cote’s three-game break was a message from the league to the Flyers, and it may have worked to some degree, because we haven’t seen a suspension since.

So why do we bring you this drawn out, youtube-heavy dissertation on the Flyers’ suspension history this season?

Because this hit didn’t earn a single game from the league:
We’ve already said we didn’t think this type of hit should merit a lengthy suspension, but that the league had set a precedent that any contact to a vulnerable player’s back, sending him into the boards, would result in a suspension. Georges Laraque could have really nailed Steve Downie here, and wisely didn’t, but he also could have not shoved him from behind at all. Downie came back to the game, and then got into a fight, so that may have swayed the league’s decision to not suspend him. The league’s message here? We’re going to protect our players from dangerous hits into the boards from behind, unless that player is Steve Downie. I don’t mean to pile on Laraques, a player I actually tend to like most of the time, but he also got away with this cheap shot, which could have easily hurt a goalie, and had no involvement in the play at all.

It’s hard to argue against the league having a goal of protecting players from injuries. But basing these suspensions on the resultant health of the player who gets hit, or the previous actions of the penalized player’s team, rather than simply the act itself, sends a very inconsistent message to the players on the ice. We frequently see dirty hits after which the recipient is fine, and not-so-dirty hits that result in injuries. The suspension has to fit the crime, and not its result, and if the league wants to use suspensions as a means of enforcement, it has to start doing so with some consistency. [/rant]